September 14, 2007

Lawsuit Questions Credentials of Teach for America Participants

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“What political candidate doesn’t say they’re for education? But what candidate does anything about it?” said Teach for America Recruitment Director Lisa Krauthamer ’04 at a packed information session Wednesday. “Education is our nation’s greatest injustice, and we need to do something about it.”
Teach for America, a program that annually places 5,000 recently graduated college students in inner-city schools in an effort to improve the education system, may be stalled in its cause due to a lawsuit challenging a loophole in the No Child Left Behind Act. Lawyers from San Francisco-based Public Advocates claim that because NCLB allows teachers like those in TFA to gain teaching credentials through alternative certification programs, many teachers are mislabeled as ‘highly qualified’.”
“The No Child Left Behind Act has a clear definition of ‘a highly qualified teacher,’ and it’s that you need to have a full state credential,” said Tara Kini, a staff attorney at Public Advocates. “The U.S. Department of Education passed a regulation that watered down the definition, and that’s what we’re challenging. Saying that teachers are highly qualified if they are still completing their training and taking classes at night goes against what Congress intended.”
If the two civil rights groups behind this case, California Acorn and California for Justice, win the lawsuit, programs like TFA will be forced to reconsider a few of their policies. Right now, the Department of Education calls TFA teachers highly qualified, setting no legal distinction between recent college grads with alternative certification and those who have full certification, according to Kini. States and districts would need to change the classification of their educators. Furthermore, NCLB indicates that there must be an equal distribution of highly qualified teachers throughout the country, and filling the highly qualified teacher quota in inner-city schools with TFA teachers would be deemed unacceptable. States and school districts would need to equalize their distributions of teachers.
The goal of the lawsuit, however, is not to stop TFA and similar programs.
“We definitely do not want to shut down these programs,” Kini said. “We think they are very important for increasing the supply of teachers. The teachers are often energetic and bring a fresh attitude, and we continue to need teachers in training … [but] when these teachers are mislabeled as highly qualified and when grouped together in a lot of urban schools, it does a disservice to students.”
TFA does not yet have a clear plan of action in case changes need to be made.
“We aren’t at that point, but we’ll work with any new policies that come out of the lawsuit to ensure our continued compliance with state and federal regulations,” said TFA Communications Associate David Nachtweih.
Besides a possible change in terminology, this lawsuit has brought up questions regarding the training process for new TFA teachers. Though training varies depending on which of the 26 regions teachers are placed in, the program invariably puts these recent graduates in the classroom in a matter of months. The question is whether this is enough time to gain the experience necessary for teaching.
“The most rigorous study to date indicated that Teach for America teachers make more progress in reading and math during a single year than would be expected,” Nachtweih said. “We believe it’s in the best interest of students to allow teachers to continue to enter the classroom through alternative routes.”
The study, conducted by the Mathematica Policy Institute and commissioned by TFA in July, also indicated that 96 percent of principals were satisfied with their TFA teachers, and 63 percent thought TFA training was better than that of other beginning teachers.
Prof. Deb Trumbull, education, thinks the training process for TFA could benefit from some changes.
“Teachers never stop learning. The good teachers are getting better every year,” Trumbull said. “It is wonderful to get good teachers in high-needs schools, but what would be ideal would be to get people who have prior successful teaching experience who can focus on the unique needs of learning in high needs schools.”
Trumbull suggested that teachers should work for longer than two years in order to get the experience necessary to become fully effective. Additionally, she said, any teacher needs to know about the policy contexts of education and the ways in which cultural backgrounds shape the way people approach schooling.
Josh Dormont ’05, who recently completed two years of TFA at a New York City public school and has decided to continue teaching at the school separate from the program, finds that TFA training gave him enough education to stand in front of a class.
Asking if he would have benefited from more extensive training, he said, “is kind of like asking a chef whether they would want extra time preparing a meal or a student whether they would want extra time taking a test — the answer is yes,” Dormont said. “I wanted to know more before I set foot in the classroom about what I was about to undertake, but at the same time, if I knew everything – and there is no such thing when it comes to education – then I would have been stagnant and most likely quite boring.”
Josh Kaplowitz, a 2000 Yale graduate and TFA alumnus, ran into more than he bargained for in his Washington D.C. classroom during his tenure with the program. In an article in City Journal, Kaplowitz described how he was charged with violently shoving a student and sued for $20 million by a parent in his exceptionally dysfunctional class. He was eventually acquitted after spending a night in jail. However, he said that his experience was more the result of a poor school system than with TFA.
“I definitely think Teach for America needs to do a much better job of training and supporting its teachers,” Kaplowitz said to The Sun. “I am highly critical of how certain aspects of Teach for America are executed, but I still wholeheartedly support the core mission of the organization. Setting aside my own teaching mistakes, it’s much more fair to say my catastrophic experience was a result of a dysfunctional school system and a dysfunctional inner city culture.”
TFA continues to be wildly popular both around the country and at Cornell. Last year, 48 Cornell students were accepted into the program and 36 ended up joining, according to Krauthamer. In 2005, 61 students were accepted, of whom 51 joined. The packed information session on Wednesday shows that the trend in popularity seems to be continuing.
“Teach for America helped me always look for ways to be a leader and to connect with others to make changes not just in my classroom, but at my school as a whole,” Dormont said. “As it is, I’ve redesigned the fourth grade math curriculum for the school and created a new tracking system for keeping up-to-date data on our students. The know-how came from Teach for America, but the drive came from the school and my students.”